Rands in Repose has a great article about the difficulties with telecommuting. It is pretty exhaustive in explaining what kinds of personalities and work cultures can make telecommuting work or not. I suppose many of the lessons can also be applied to outsourcing or any kind of distributed systems.
Although Rands doesn’t use the term, the most important aspect of working remotely is “trust”. When managers and other employees have limited trust in the employee working remotely, there will be “friction”. And all the communication overhead is simply meant to create and maintain that trust. So the remote employee has to communicate more even if he or she does the same amount of work. It is perhaps not fair, but that is how it is.
To be fair, telecommuting has several things going for it. In many cases, it is like an instant salary hike for employees. They don’t waste hours and fuel on the road. If they have children, they save tons of money on the babysitting bills. They can work more convenient hours. Employers can also benefit by maintaining lower infrastructural overhead at the office.
But as Rands says, the long-term effects are not quite so good as he believes that within a year, the typical telecommuter is on the verge of quitting or being fired. The fact of the matter is that most people don’t have the skills to communicate well enough or consistently enough to overcome the friction. This is not a judgment, it is simply that people don’t have the experience or been trained to be able to work remotely.
I suppose the newer generation used to interacting with hundreds of virtual friends across the globe will be more used to doing this better. Problem is most managers are not of that generation. We will check again in another decade to see how this has changed.
[Photo licensed from wrunsby]